As well as the being the first truly televised war, the Vietnam War helped inspire a cultural movement unparalleled in recent times. A key element of that was cinema, which brought home the remarkable nature of a unique conflict, a conflict that provided exceptional fodder for many iconic film makers.
1. Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic is as well-known for the infamous circumstances in which it was produced as for its gripping narrative.
Martin Sheen, who plays the film’s protagonist, had a heart attack on set. Marlon Brando, playing the rogue Green Beret Colonel Kurtz, turned up on set severely overweight – the start of a remarkable decline.
The film’s total cost ballooned to millions of dollars over budget, as hundreds of actors, production staff and extras routinely smoked and swallowed a whole array of narcotics. A typhoon also swept through their set in the Philippines.
However, out of the chaos emerged a dark-hearted, surreal masterpiece that was, if anything, enhanced by the circumstances of its production.
Another director from the highest pantheon – Oliver Stone – brought this opus to cinema screens in 1984. Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a fresh infantry recruit who finds himself embedded in a platoon that regularly engages in war crimes.
His is a story of moral turmoil as the two platoon sergeants, Elias and Barnes, force him to choose between decency and psychopathy.
3. The Deer Hunter
The only film that brings home the domestic fallout from Vietnam, Deer Hunter has a stellar cast – Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken, among many other – and details the various trials and horrors suffered by a group of Russian-American steelworkers and the tight-knit community they belong to.
4. Full Metal Jacket
Yet another directorial heavyweight, Stanley Kubrick, uses the platform of Vietnam to explore standard military fare – brutal training and huge set-piece battles.
It kicks off powerfully with R. Lee Ermey, playing the prototypical psychopathic Marine Corp drill sergeant who whips fresh recruits into shape, providing possibly the best line of all 5 films – ‘I didn’t know they stacked shit so high!’
The film graduates to a series of epic battle scenes, including the Battle of Hue, and the recruits are picked off by booby traps and a young female sniper.
5. Good Morning Vietnam
A departure from the gritty, dark tone of the four previous films, Good Morning Vietnam is dominated by a defining performance from the late Robin Williams.
Hated by the high command but loved by the troops, Williams’s character’s irreverent approach to authority and the trials of war endears him to the troops.
6. Forrest Gump
Although this epic doesn’t revolve around Vietnam, is does contain an iconic sequence. Forrest, played by Tom Hanks, obliviously lived an extraordinary life, which involved being sent to Vietnam in the war’s early stages.
His platoon is ambushed and Forrest manages to save 4 men, including platoon leader Lieutenant Dan. He receives the Medal of Honour from President Lyndon Johnson, and is later attacked by Lieutenant Dan, who holds Forrest accountable for the fact he lost his legs in the ambush.
7. Hamburger Hill
This 1987 film is a depiction of the actual assault of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, part of the ‘Screaming Eagles’, on ‘Hamburger Hill’, an NV stronghold on the Ap Bia Mountain near the Laotian border.
In a series of gruelling encounters, the US contingent is whittled down to handful of battered soldiers, who eventually capture the Hill, but at a massive cost.